Plants can recognise their kin around them and will not compete for resources with plants they are closely related to, according to researchers from McMaster University, Ontario, in 2007. “Plants have this kind of hidden but complicated social life,” Susan Dudley, co-author of the paper, said. However, the mechanism by which they are able to do this is not understood.

Plants from the same species of beach-dwelling wildflower competed more aggressively for resources when planted next to unrelated neighbours but were less competitive with their relatives. The researchers studied a North American species of sea rocket and found it ‘showed more vigorous root growth,’ according to the report.

This is an example of kin selection, a behaviour more common in animals than plants, and shows that some plants are capable of quite complex interactions. Related individuals preferentially treat their siblings, offspring and siblings’ offspring over strangers on the basis that their kin carry some of their genes and it’s therefore advantageous to treat them well. In animals, learning and memory are essential to kin selection in order to build up these close bonds. But plants are incapable of these functions, so how they determine which of their neighbours are relatives remains a mystery, Dudley said. It’s likely that chemicals released into the soil around the roots of the plants signal to their neighbours, and related individuals are able to recognise each other this way.

Further to this, researchers from the University of California and Kyoto University, Japan, recorded that plants were able to send warnings of being attacked to relatives. Cuttings of sagebrush were planted alongside their genetic clones and unrelated individuals. The cuttings were then damaged on a regular basis to mimic the damage caused by a grasshopper. Cuttings planted next to genetic clones suffered 42 per cent less damage than unrelated individuals, showing that relatives preferentially warn each other of potential threats.

It’s possible that applications of this research could be used in agriculture. If crops can be grown that compete less with their neighbours for resources and protect each other against damage they will waste less energy and produce a higher yield. It’s possible that a genetically modified crop could grow more efficiently and have a natural anti-pest response, however, crops with little genetic diversity are more prone to disease and will spread disease quicker than more genetically diverse crops.

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